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Return to Freedom (RTF)


When deciding where to intern next, I wanted to learn more about horse behavior and language. I had already spent a lot of time studying the horses at Stina's, but I also wanted to study wild horses. After a lot of searching on Google, I gave upReturn to Freedom, Wild horse sanctuary in California. The plan was that I worked 6 hours a day and had plenty of time to study the horses. The reality was completely different with 11 hours on normal days and more every time something special happened.  There was little time to sit and observe the horses, but on the other hand I had eleven training horses, responsibility for nursing care and parts of the job as equine manager, so there was a lot of learning anyway.


My training horses were either sick horses that needed to be tamed to be treated, horses with special colors that would become ambassador horses (used in shows and events to showcase different types of Mustangs),   or horses that applied to humans and were tamed and adopted away. The tamest of them had barely worn a halter, and the wildest panicked if people entered the paddock. My task was to get them used to being handled, halter tamed, brushed, hooves cleaned and hired. It was very exciting work where I got to test everything I could in practice. I had to test, make mistakes, learn from them and fix them again. I remember very well the first horse I had to get used to a halter. I did the ground work, I first trained that it was okay to be touched on the head before I put the halter on. It went really well getting it on, but then I made a loud clanking noise with the halter and scared the wits out of the horse. It took over a week for me to get the halter off again and longer than some of the other horses for her to be completely confident with it. I quickly realized that I had forgotten some important steps along the way. After that, halter training consisted of being allowed to touch the head with the hands, then with the halter, making clinking noises and moving before the halter came on. It took a little longer before the halter was on the first time, but then there were no problems after this either.


Another big mistake that I remember very well was during rental training. I worked with all the horses loose before I started renting with ropes. In other words, all the horses followed when I asked them to. The lease went very well until we encountered something scary, and I soon found out that I hadn't worked enough with direct pressure on the halter. Thus, I focused on tying up first, and the leash training went much easier.


I remember some of the horses particularly well. One was Jewel; she was skeptical of people and normally did not want to be handled. Unfortunately, she had an injury in one of her front legs, and so she went into a panicked gallop, which after a few steps resulted in her limping on three legs. The solution was to start from the outside of the fence. She was one of the first horses I got to work with, so at this point I had quite a bit of time. Some days all free time was spent outside the fence. Then one day as I was now sitting on the inside, with my back to the paddock and watching one of the larger herds of foals, a cautious horse mule came to examine my back. The next time I sat there I reached back and gently touched her neck. It caused a huge gasp, but it didn't take many seconds before she was back again. The feeling of trust when she found out that it was okay that I was in there, and later that I was actually quite good at scratching, was very special.  When it had been a long time since I had been to Jewel, it always took a while for her to think it was okay for me to be there.  The morning routine therefore became to start the day by sitting a bit in her paddock. Eventually I began to really appreciate these quiet morning hours.


One of the others was Makazi. He was one of those who had come the furthest into the work when I arrived, but who was going very, very well slowly in training with. He was not only afraid of the first brush, or the second, but also the tenth. But then one day it came loose! And then things weren't just a little bit okay. When he decided what we were doing was okay, everything was cool and I was no longer able to find things he thought were scary. He saw it all as a game, and he was therefore one of the people who helped me the most with my body language. We simply had great fun, and I think he is the horse I have had the most fun with.


The last horse that I want to mention here was not one of my training horses. It was a choctaw pony mare. She was in the herd I had the most time to observe since Jewel's paddock was right next door. The first time I noticed her was when I was trying to figure out which foal belonged to which mare. The foal will normally drink milk from its mother, but within a fairly short time I saw as many as five foals drinking milk from her. Later it became more and more clear that if something happened and the pack gathered, they always gathered around her. She went around to check if anyone was having problems, and stepped in during conflicts and the like. I never saw her bite, kick or otherwise be aggressive. She was just calm and safe, and the whole pack was looking towards her. I remember sitting there one day and thinking that there, there we have my role model!


Even though there wasn't much time for behavior observations, I got an absolutely fantastic opportunity to work with body language. I found out pretty quickly that the horses that were almost or totally handled[fm1]  had a very different sensitivity to body language than what I am used to at home. I got to try and fail, and learned an awful lot.


When I was an intern at Ellen Ofstad, one of the most important things I was taught was body language. How, by movement, attitude and energy, you can steer the horses around when they are loose. But I have never before or since been able to use and play with it in the same way. We could do figures of eight, circles - bigger and smaller, transitions between gait and tempo. I was constantly surprised by how much diversity we achieved. This part of the training was more for me than the horses. When I did things right we got it done, even with horses that had had almost no contact with humans.


Almost as interesting as the training horses was the care of sick horses. It is one thing to treat horses that are used to being handled a lot, but it is quite another when they are not. Some of the horses were completely wild, and there were the options to wait and see, or to shoot them (or possibly take them in a forced box, but that only applies to things that needed to be done once, as it is very traumatizing for the horses .. There was one who had been captured, before he was captured he had barely learned to lift his hooves, at least half way through. He had to have rubber plates under both front legs that were attached with silver tape, these had to be reattached every day. was very clear that they helped, because if they fell off he had trouble walking, and he had little desire to stand on one leg while the other was bandaged (I eventually got so good at taping the hoof that I could do it in less than 10 seconds.) Practicing lifting your legs while it hurts to lift is not an easy job, but very educational.

Another time I found a horse that stood on three legs. She had stepped on a nail. I called one of my friends who had worked there for a long time and asked if she could lift legs. The answer was that yes, she could, but the last time the hoof trimmer was there he had given her up because she kicked like that. Then we had the mare who had severe diarrhoea, and received powder from the vet. The problem was that she had never eaten concentrate, and was more afraid of people than a crow who would very much like to have the bucket. After a few days she found out that the concentrate was good and it became easier, but it was a big challenge and protecting the bucket from a bird that was less afraid of people than the horse that we were actually trying to get to eat it.. All those three horses ended up recovering.


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